Richard Ostling

BBC asks: What is the future of religion? Does organized religion have a future?

BBC asks: What is the future of religion? Does organized religion have a future?

THE QUESTION:

This cosmic theme is raised by a British Broadcasting Corporation article under the headline, “Tomorrow’s Gods: What is the Future of Religion?”

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

In its early history the BBC (born in 1927, the year of the U.S. Radio Act) was nicknamed “Auntie” for its comforting, old-style tone. But The Beeb goes futuristic in a current online series that takes “the long view of humanity.” An August article offered the forecast about  religion (click here).

Writer Sumit Paul-Choudhury, former editor-in-chief of the New Scientist magazine, notes that religions ebb and flow across eons.

The Parsees’ religion originated with Zarathustra (a.k.a. Zoroaster) in roughly the era of the ancient Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. The faith  had millions of followers in the Persian Empire’s heyday but today counts only 60,000. Christians began as a tiny Jewish sect, spread through the Roman Empire, and today are found  most everywhere and practice the world’s largest religion.

Rather than seeing religions as providing spiritual truths and essential morality, Paul-Choudhury leans toward the “functionalist” theory by which creeds evolved to provide social cohesion. Think Karl Marx, who deemed religion the “opium of the masses.” As clans and tribes gave way to large and diverse nations, people were able to coexist through devotion to “Big Gods,” and so forth.

Importantly, this BBC writer foresees a bleak future. Growing numbers “say they have no religion at all. We obey laws made and enforced by governments, not by God. Secularism is on the rise, with science providing tools to understand and shape the world. Given all that, there’s a growing consensus that the future of religion is that it has no future.”

Thinkers have been promoting that same consensus since the 17th and 18th Century “Enlightenment.”

A special problem hampered religions during the past century, he briefly acknowledges. Nations like Soviet Russia and China “adopted atheism as state policy and frowned on even private religious expression.”

Frowned”?

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How do today's woes on the mainstream religion beat compare with 1983 and 1994?

How do today's woes on the mainstream religion beat compare with 1983 and 1994?

Religion writers are buzzing about Prof. Charles Camosy’s Sept. 6 commentary on religion’s sagging cultural and journalistic status.

Decades ago, GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly, who analyzed Camosy in this post surveyed this same terrain in a classic 1983 article for Quill magazine, drawn from his research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. This is a journalism issue with legs.

There’s a little-known third such article, not available online. While cleaning out basement files, The Religion Guy unearthed a 1994 piece in the unfortunately short-lived Forbes Media Critic titled “Separation of Church & Press?” Writer Stephen Bates, then a senior fellow at the Annenberg Washington Program in Communications Policy Studies, now teaches media studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Both of these older articles were pretty glum.

Religion coverage suffers today as part a print industry on life support, in large part because of a digital advertising crisis. Radio and TV coverage of religion, then and now, is thin to non-existent and the Internet is a zoo of reporting, opinion and advocacy — often at the same time.

Those earlier times could fairly be looked back upon as the golden age of religion reporting. (Side comment: What a pleasure to read quotes in both articles from The Guy’s talented competitors and pals in that era.

Former Newsweek senior editor Edward Diamond (by then teaching journalism at New York University) told Bates that back in the 1960s the newsmagazine’s honchos had considered dropping the religion section entirely. If true, they were open to journalistic malparactice. In those years, competitors at Time, The New Yorker, the wires and newspapers were chock full of coverage from Catholicism’s Second Vatican Council and its tumultuous aftermath.

By the 1980s, Mattingly hoped for possible change in religion coverage’s “low-priority” status as journalism’s “best-kept secret.”

You want news? Let’s look back at that era.

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Denhollander’s memoir on vast gymnastics scandal is a landmark for religion as well as athletics

Denhollander’s memoir on vast gymnastics scandal is a landmark for religion as well as athletics

Countless books have landed on The Religion Guy’s desk over decades and rarely has he cited one as a “must read” or “book of the year.”

But such descriptions are appropriate for Rachael Denhollander’s candid memoir “What Is a Girl Worth?” about exposing the vast sexual-abuse scandal at USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. The evangelical Tyndale House issues her book on Sept. 10 alongside a four-session study guide, and the author’s non-salacious “How Much Is a Little Girl Worth?” for young readers.

Attorney Denhollander, the first person to publicly lodge accusations against MSU athletics osteopath Larry Nassar, has a unique status. She is a heroine named among Time’s 100 Most Influential People, Glamour’s Women of the Year, recipients of ESPN’s Courage Award and Sports Illustrated’s Inspiration of the Year. At the same time, she’s the wife of a doctoral student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, while raising four young children and she uses her hard-won celebrity to present Christian truth.

An account of the worst sex-abuse case in its history is obviously a landmark for U.S. sports, but this is also a vitally important story for religion writers, and most certainly for Denhollander’s fellow evangelical Protestants, who are now following Catholicism in stumbling through #MeToo crises. (Along the way, journalists will relish the inside account of her byplay with investigative reporters and the media horde.)

Denhollander alone bravely lodged public accusations against predator Nassar, a big shot in gymnastics. Eventually, he faced 332 accusers of all ages including Olympic superstars, the Feds unearthed his stash of 37,000 child pornography files and he was sent to prison for life. MSU was forced to pay $500 million in damages, but any USA Gymnastics payout is problematic because it was forced to file for bankruptcy protection.

What’s vitally important in this sordid narrative is helping readers comprehend the severe psychological damage that sexual abuse creates in the victims. “It follows you. It changes you forever.” And then why, like Denhollander, victims often raise protests long after the incidents, or never raise them at all. They feel nobody will believe them, and for good reason. And they fear the cost that will be paid by the accuser. For Denhollander, that cost was enormous.

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What is 'fundamentalism'? Hint: Grab a copy of the Associated Press Stylebook

What is 'fundamentalism'? Hint: Grab a copy of the Associated Press Stylebook

THE QUESTION: 

What is (and is not) “fundamentalism”?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

One of The Guy’s weekly memos for getreligion.org recently proposed that “fundamentalism” has become such an abused and misunderstood label that maybe we media folk should drop it altogether.

The Guy was provoked to go public with this heretical idea when The New York Times Book Review  assessed a memoir of life among Jehovah’s Witnesses. The reviewer, who teaches at Harvard Divinity School, said repeatedly that Witnesses are “fundamentalists.”

Ouch (see below).  If the Ivy League elite and the nation’s most influential newspaper are confused, it’s time to consider scrapping such a meaningless word.

Not so long ago, most people understood that a fundamentalist is by definition a Protestant, usually in the U.S., and a strongly tradition-minded one with a distinct flavor and fervor. Some quick history.

The term originated with “The Fundamentals,” a series of 12 booklets with 90 essays by varied thinkers from English-speaking countries that were distributed beginning in 1910. Along with standard Christian tenets, the writers defended and the authority and historical truth of the Bible over against liberal theories coming mainly from Germany.

That founding effort drew support from “mainline” Protestants, “evangelicals” and proto-“fundamentalists.” Brothers Milton and Lyman Stewart, the Union Oil millionaires who funded the project, were lay Presbyterians. The authors were reputable scholars ranging from Anglican bishops to “mainline” seminary professors to Bible college presidents. The tricky issue of the creation accounts in the Book of Genesis was not assigned to an extreme literal interpreter but respected Scottish theologian James Orr.

The budding movement was further defined by insistence on the “five points of fundamentalism,” namely the Bible’s “inerrancy” (history without error) as originally written, the truth of biblical miracles,  the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, his bodily resurrection from the dead, and “vicarious” atonement through his death on the cross to save sinners.

Notably, these points were defined by predecessors of today’s rather liberal Presbyterian Church (USA). After a dispute over clergy ordinations in New York City, the General Assembly of 1910 required affirmation of the five points by clergy candidates, and reaffirmed that policy in 1916 and 1923.

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Ready or not: Proposals for big United Methodist Church breakup are due by September 18

Ready or not: Proposals for big United Methodist Church breakup are due by September 18

United Methodist Church strategists have been sweating out how to maneuver since last February’s special General Conference voted by 53 percent to reinforce traditional doctrines that bar same-sex weddings and actively gay clergy. Ongoing resistance to that from liberal bishops, agency officials, educators, pastors and congregations appears to make it inevitable that the existing disagreement will be formalized in a big breakup.

But what, when and how?

Religion writers will want to focus on proposed legislation on this for next year’s General Conference (May 5–15 in Minneapolis), due to be filed by a September 18 deadline. Three notable drafts, which may be polished further before submission, are thus far in the mix:

On July 8, Bishops David Bard of Lansing, Michigan, and Scott Jones of Houston, Texas, offered “A New Form of Unity.”

On August 8, a dozen key figures representing traditionalist, liberal and “centrist” views joined to issue the “Indianapolis Plan.”

On August 19, the less detailed “UMCNext Proposal” was issued by an alliance of UMC caucuses that want a change to full LGBTQ inclusion.

All three schemes envision the simplest possible path to schism without the hassle of rewriting the UMC constitution, and fairly soon, though timelines vary. You’ll want to compare the final texts with help from UMC analysts, but looks to The Religion Guy like the outlines of a deal are already emerging. However, endless details remain to be thrashed out. Methodists would need to carve up a global church of 12.6 million members and 44,000 congregations, with annual donations of $6.3 billion, plus massive assets.

Some envision a three-way split if necessary, but the UMC essentially faces a two-way divide, with LGBTQ policy the precipitating issue that reflects generally differing attitudes toward the Bible and historic theology.

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Is it OK to pray for President Donald Trump’s defeat?

Is it OK to pray for President Donald Trump’s defeat?

BRAD ASKS:      

I think Trump is a bad president. Is it right of me to pray for his defeat?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Let’s turn Brad’s question around. Will it be proper for others to pray for the defeat of the Democrats’ 2020 nominee? Does this change the answer?

The president has provoked the most ferocious pro-and-con political emotions in our lifetimes, so prayers inevitably result. That’s because prayer is a virtually universal phenomenon.

We all know the phrase ‘foxhole religion” about desperate situations. How many hardened unbelievers find themselves offering sincere prayers when their child is in the emergency room?  Even under ordinary circumstances, Pew Research polling shows 55 percent of Americans say they pray every day, while an added 21 percent pray regularly but less frequently. Even one-fifth of those without any religious affiliation or identity pray daily!

There are countless accounts of favorable responses to prayer, yet how do we understand the many prayers left unanswered? Why do bad things happen to good people despite their prayers? Why do good things happen to evil people who never pray? What happens when, as with election 2020, people pray simultaneously for opposite results a la President Lincoln on the two sides in the Civil War: “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other.”

Mysteries abound. A veteran minister’s newsletter says after a “physical breakdown” and full medical testing last year, doctors concluded he was “exhausted by stress and worry.” He indeed faced major difficulties, but the diagnosis surprised him because he was praying so earnestly. He finally realized “I was simply worrying in the presence of God,” which “wore me out.” His health gradually improved after he learned to relax and simply pray for “strength to persevere,” with “peace in the assurance that God has heard me.”

These are among the most complex matters of the human heart, as ancient as the Bible’s Psalms and Book of Job (which provide us no neat formulas).

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Israel faces a possible turning point on 17th of September, with religion at the heart of it

Israel faces a possible turning point on 17th of September, with religion at the heart of it

While rehashing the Miftah-inspired — www.miftah.org — feud between U.S. Muslim Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib and Israel, U.S. and international media should also be focusing on Israel’s September 17 elections. Vivian Bercovici, Canada’s former ambassador to Israel (in 2014-16), sees a dangerous internal split perhaps unmatched since modern Israel was founded in 1948 – or even since the 1st Century.

Media without bureaus in Israel (and that’s most of them) should be planning coverage by in-house staffers or freelance experts before and/or after the vote. They will benefit from Bercovici’s opinion piece in the summer issue of Commentary magazine and Marcy Oster’s objective roundup on the tangled parties and pols for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Israel, of course, faces endless conflict with Palestinians. But there’s an increasingly troublesome internal struggle involving a minority of “ultra-Orthodox” Haredim (a term meaning those who “tremble” before God), currently 12 percent of the population and growing steadily. (They are distinct from the equally devout Hasidim and the less rigorist modern Orthodox.)

The conflict centers on exemption from the military draft for 130,000 Haredi men who study Torah and Talmud full-time. Bercovici, an attorney living in Tel Aviv, contends that the resulting burden on the national population is divisive, unfair and has become ‘financially and ethically unsustainable.”

Journalists must note: There is no way to escape the religious issues linked to these conflicts.

The system dates from a compromise by the first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who exempted the tiny band of 400 such students to soften resistance by the Orthodox who believed modern Israel should not be founded before the Messiah appeared (as depicted in Chaim Potok’s classic 1967 novel “The Chosen”).

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The church vs. the Sexual Revolution: What is 'purity culture' and why is it in the news?

The church vs. the Sexual Revolution: What is 'purity culture' and why is it in the news?

THE QUESTION:

What is “purity culture,” and why is it in the news?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

A particular U.S. Protestant campaign born in the 1990s sought to urge teens and young adults to follow the age-old Christian (also Jewish, Muslim, etc.) teaching against sexual relations before marriage. Outsiders and opponents called this the “purity culture” movement, and it’s currently in the news and the subject of intense online debate.

That “purity” label is confusing because critics of the phenomenon are not just secularists or those who scoff at old-fashioned morality. Conservatives who likewise advocate the sexual “purity’ taught in Christian tradition raise some of the most pointed objections to this movement’s specific theology, techniques, and claims.

The cause originated in 1993 with sex education materials under the “True Love Waits’ banner issued by the publishing arm of America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Within just one year of existence a Washington, D.C. rally drew 25,000 youths and displayed 210,000 sexual abstinence pledge cards on the National Mall.

The movement appealed to many moms and dads who were wounded by the sexual libertinism that began in the 1960s and wanted more wholesome relationships for their own children, fretting over increases in sexually transmitted disease, unwed pregnancy and divorce. The pledges of abstinence until marriage were reinforced by wearing rings popularized from 1995 onward by The Silver Ring Thing organization, reconfigured last year as Unaltered Ministries. Instead of high school proms, some churches held “purity balls” where dads escorted daughters.

The movement is back in the news due to its primary celebrity guru, Joshua Harris, who at a tender age 21 wrote “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.”

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Will everybody reach heaven? Are fights over hell about to grab some more headlines?

Will everybody reach heaven? Are fights over hell about to grab some more headlines?

Chances are churches frequented by your readers and listeners rarely if ever offer sermons about hell and damnation these days. And yet this rather unpleasant topic is eternally (so to speak) fascinating, and may be about to grab some headlines. That’s due to Eastern Orthodox lay theologian David Bentley Hart's acerbic Sep. 24 release from Yale University Press “That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, & Universal Salvation.”

Sample sentences: “No one, logically speaking, could merit eternal punishment.”

Also this: “If Christianity is in any way true, Christians dare not doubt the salvation of all,”

Yes, Hart is a Hitler-in-heaven sort of guy (see page 38), and your sources will have interesting responses. Lest Hart seem a rank heretic, the Very Rev. John Behr of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary blurbs that this book presents “the promise that, in the end, all will indeed be saved, and exposing the inadequacy — above all moral — of claims to the contrary.”

Heretofore Hart was better known for ridiculing non-belief, as in “Atheist Delusions.” The prolific author has held a succession of university appointments, most recently as a University of Notre Dame fellow. Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths (in the news when he resigned over Duke University’s “diversity” policy) proclaims Hart “the most eminent” theologian in the English-speaking world.

Terms Hart applies to centuries of traditional orthodox and Orthodox doctrines on hell and damnation include “absurd,” “ludicrous,” “nonsensical,” “incoherent,” “horrid,” “degrading,” “loathsome,” “diseased,” “perverse,” “cruel,” “wicked” and “morally repugnant.” He is mainly offended by the idea that punishment is everlasting, on grounds that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Hart is open to some sort of cleansing to make sorry souls fit for heaven, but doesn’t spell out any version of Western Catholicism’s Purgatory.

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